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September 24, 2004

Deaf Talkabout: Sign language - a question of choice

From: Belfast Telegraph, United Kingdom - Sep 24, 2004

By Bob McCullough
24 September 2004

Writing to me about his book, 'I See A Voice', philosopher and freelance writer Jonathan Ree said that it does seem to him a terrible injustice that so few deaf people are able to feel at ease in the world of books, and it is something deaf education must address.

Among many other things, the professor has studied deaf education during the big change from manualism to oralism in the late 19th century and I asked him if he agreed that the important element in education of the deaf is acquiring internal language.

In his address at the BDA Congress, Jonathan refers to Abbe de L'Epee regarding signs as a means, not an end, in the education of the deaf, and says that the old teacher was very keen to get his pupils to lip-read.

"During a visit to the Mary Hare School in Berkshire the headmaster told me that this was their aim - to get pupils to be able to think in language and not in signs. Is the lack of this a factor in the low literary levels of most deaf? Your book seems to concur," I asked.

Jonathan said he agreed, but was wary of the idea of 'internal language' as it is clear that much thinking is 'in language' and he doubts if there is any language that is not worth learning in the sense that it would extend your intellectual world.

"One sign of real bilingualism is being able to say things in one language that you would be at a loss to say in the other. And that is one of the oddities of Abbe de L'Epee: he really wanted to treat signs as just a parasite on Latin or French, rather than as parts of really independent languages".

I told Jonathan that most hearing parents of deaf children now appear to be looking to mainstream schools as the panacea to overcome the problem of education. In his speech at Congress he had said that to be cut off from languages is to be cut off from most of the poetry, literature, science and philosophy of the past. If the Government grants recognition of sign language does this not merely emphasise the growing danger of catering for a declining and lower-grade ghetto?

"My first guess would be that it is always better for children to be educated in mainstream schools if it is at all possible. Perhaps the ideal would be that every region should have one primary school and one secondary school with special facilities for signing children - in other words, that sign language should become part of the mainstream.

"But perhaps the deaf population is not sufficiently numerous to make this workable."

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